Even before Philly’s head-scratching, first-in-the-nation reinstatement of an indoor mask mandate this week, I’d been wondering: Just why is City Council still meeting virtually? Why did our ever-absentee mayor make his annual budget address to Council via Zoom?
At a time when the city is admirably clawing its way back to life, what kind of message are we getting from cowering elected officials, who seem to think we’re still in the pre-vaccination days of 2020, when masking and sequestering and social distancing really was a matter of life and death? We revel in our image as a tough, gritty town. We boo a crappy Santa Claus and we take a certain perverse pride in the fact that our state Public Utility Commission once had to mandate etiquette training for our cab drivers.
Now, seeing a crawl across CNN’s screen that “Philadelphia is the first city in the nation to reinstate a mask mandate,” you have to wonder: Just when did we become a city of wusses?
In the Washington Post, the esteemed Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore’s former health commissioner, made it clear: “Other cities should not follow suit,” she wrote, accusing Philly of “crying wolf.”
Let me be clear: I embrace mask-wearing. I haven’t gotten a cold in damn near three years, so you bet I’m going to be masking up in crowded indoor spaces for the foreseeable future. I believe in science and Fauci and vaccinations and boosters and common sense. But there’s a reason other cities aren’t rushing to join Philly’s mask mandate: It violates all of those precepts.
Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole’s announcement of the mandate was odd—we’ll get to her strangest reasoning in a moment—but here’s her argument, in a nutshell: Philly’s case count is averaging 142 new cases per day, up 50 percent over the last 10 days, but still a far cry from the 4,000 daily average at the worst of the Omicron wave. Even though hospitalizations remain low, Bettigole is acting out of an abundance of caution—“this is our chance to get ahead of the pandemic”—in order to stave off a BA.2 Omicron subvariant wave.
Okay. But did she first talk to, say, the ever-trustworthy CHOP Policy Lab, which just before her announcement expressed its view: “Our team advises against required masking given that hospital capacity is good.”
Other experts promptly chimed in: Philly was jumping the gun. In the Washington Post, the esteemed Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore’s former health commissioner, made it clear: “Other cities should not follow suit,” she wrote.
Wen goes on to offer a devastating critique of Mayor Jim Kenney and his administration. Philadelphia’s case count is still in the CDC’s low-risk zone, she explains, and, more importantly, like CHOP’s Policy Lab, she emphasizes that our hospitalization rate remains low.
You’d think that progressives like Kenney, who have rightly lectured MAGA neanderthals the last three years about “following the science,” would have actually done so. Instead, Wen accuses Philly of “crying wolf:”
Federal health officials have already changed their focus from preventing infection to reducing severe illness. President Biden’s new coronavirus response coordinator, Ashish Jha, said this week that he is not “excessively concerned” about the rise in BA.2 and that the administration does not expect any substantial changes to its masking guidance. Anthony S. Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, echoed that shift away from top-down mandates to individual decision-making. Are Philadelphia officials saying that they disagree with and won’t follow the Biden administration’s approach to the coronavirus? Or do they believe that hospitals will become strained, despite evidence to the contrary? Neither instills confidence, which is crucial to compliance and restoring trust in public health.
Things got really weird when Bettigole was pressed on her defiance of CDC recommendations. “We’ve all seen here in Philadelphia, how much our history of redlining, history of disparities has impacted, particularly our Black and Brown communities in the city,” she said. “And so it does make sense to be more careful in Philadelphia, than, you know, perhaps in an affluent suburb.”
Do you understand this reasoning? Adopting policies at odds with Joe Biden’s CDC is somehow akin to fighting redlining? Obviously, Bettigone is pointing to a serious issue that plagues Philadelphia and elsewhere—our systemic scourge of racial health disparities. But mandatory masking addresses that…how?
If Bettigole were super serious about confronting disparities, she’d call for mandating vaccination and booster shots throughout the city, no? After all, we know that those who are in risk of serious illness now are some combination of unvaccinated, non-boostered, obese, and/or suffering from other co-morbidities, right? If the city really wants to make a dent in an anticipated wave, it would directly address the most vulnerable among us. And it would not just mandate masks, but n95 masks—the only ones proven to work effectively against the latest variants.
But no one—not even Bettigole—is calling for any of that, because we’re not in a crisis commensurate with such action, a principle that applies to mandatory masking, as well. Look, Cheryl Bettigole is obviously committed to preserving the public health, but, as with so much in city government of late, you wonder just who the hell is actually thinking things through.
The fact is, leaders in other cities have recognized that for the majority of otherwise healthy vaccinated and boosted citizens, Covid is now a bad flu, which is why the determinative data point to watch is the hospitalization rate, not the number of cases. New York Mayor Eric Adams has said, “We have got to learn to live with Covid”; after contracting the virus last week, he seemed just fine on video, speaking out forcefully in the aftermath of this week’s horrific Brooklyn subway shooting.
He’s right—there is widespread agreement that what matters now is the severity of cases, not how many there are. Adams agrees, CHOP Policy Lab agrees, doctors like Leana Wen agree. The only outlier is…Philadelphia.
Last December, at our Ideas We Should Steal Festival, former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said that leadership is “the ability to shape the public will.” It puts me in mind of the definition proffered by British General Bernard Law Montgomery: “The capacity and the will to rally men and women to a common purpose and the character which inspires confidence.”
Is that the kind of leadership we got this week, from Jim Kenney’s waving of the white flag before a Covid surge that hadn’t even appeared yet? Doesn’t a prophylactic mask mandate misread what the electorate wants and needs? We need what the aforementioned General—“Monty” to his troops—delivered in 1942 to his beleaguered men and nation: “I want to impose on everyone that the bad times are over, they are finished! Our mandate from the Prime Minister is to destroy the Axis forces in North Africa… It can be done, and it will be done!”
Let me be clear: I embrace mask-wearing. I haven’t gotten a cold in damn near three years, so you bet I’m going to be masking up in crowded indoor spaces for the foreseeable future.
The bad times are over. Rather than perpetuate them, that’s what we need to hear. We need leaders who recognize how far we’ve come, who shout out the pharmaceutical companies and scientists that heroically developed vaccines in record time, and who school us in how to adjust our thinking as we go from pandemic to endemic.
I’m not calling for mindless cheerleading or happy talk. Yes, we have to continue to be smart in the face of Covid and its variants. But, as we enter Covid’s endemic stage, we’ll have to think more strategically about managing risk. Policymakers will need to start taking a scalpel to the problem, rather than a sledgehammer. And they’ll have to tailor their messaging to read the room. There’s a reason I’m quoting Monty, y’all. We’re from Philly. I’m betting that most of our fellow citizens don’t take too kindly to being seen nationally as quivering in fear before the specter of Covid.
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Header photo by Clembore Memotech / Flickr